Omari AkilUnited States
First published in The Manifold and reprinted here with permission. —WEM]
As the tabletop gaming hobby expands toward more diverse markets, we will see more games that surprise us — not just in their themes or art styles, but in the way that they play. That also means that the way we design has to change as well. It means that current game design standards and conventions will need to stretch, bend, and occasionally break if we want to reach a diverse audience.
This hit home for me during final playtesting for Rap Godz, a strategy and storytelling game set in the world of up-and-coming hip-hop artists, and it made me rethink some of the ways I approach game design.
During a playtest session, two of the game's mechanisms — Beef and Pick Upz — were gently criticized several times. Beef is one of the only direct player interaction opportunities in the game, with one player "attacking" another and both rolling dice to determine the outcome. These playtesters essentially said Beef felt too random since there were few ways to change the outcome of the dice roll.
Pick Upz are small bonuses collected by being the first to cross point thresholds on each of the Rap Resource tracks. The comments suggested it was unfair that those who started the game in the lead on a resource track could more easily focus on and collect all the Pick Upz on that track.
These playtesters focused on the player's lack of control during Beef and on what they perceived as a runaway leader problem with Pick Upz. I listened to that feedback but never felt compelled to change anything throughout that conversation.
My tolerance for randomness and being in an unfair position is a product of my lived experience. I'm used to taking risks, and I understand that for reasons like prejudice and systemic racism I may have almost no influence on the outcome. I'm also more comfortable starting from a disadvantaged place and finding ways to overcome these things to the best of my ability, so I don't see as big of a problem with games that let some of these concepts persist, and sometimes I connect with them even more because of it.
As I was processing this, I think the group felt their feedback was being dismissed and I, of course, apologized for that — but I won't apologize for wanting players to feel a little bit of the pain of not being in control of certain outcomes. And I won't apologize for having players feel a little bit hopeless when they are starting at a disadvantage and have very few ways to catch up.
I won't apologize because as a black man in America, I feel those things almost every day. No one apologizes to me, and I don't need them to. What I do need is more people to understand that games created by me and other minority designers will step outside the design norms previously established by a white masculine tradition in gaming, and that it's necessary and important to move the industry forward with game designs that reflect our experiences and perspectives in the world that we live in.•••
The Manifold is an email newsletter dedicated to exploring the world through the stories of tabletop games. Every week, The Manifold features thinkpieces and personal essays from writers and editors in the board game and RPG communities. Sign up for The Manifold here.
About the author: Omari Akil is the designer of Rap Godz and the co-founder, with Hamu Dennis, of Board Game Brothas, a New Orleans-based game design company that focuses on unique themes and dope gameplay experiences. Omari is also the host of "The Breakdown" and a partner at Pathways Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter: @OmariAkil.
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